An Italian who began the story of immigration to America. When Christopher Columbus set foot on American soil in 1492, he launched a flood of migration that is still in motion, and that transformed the continent completely. Although Italy as a unified nation did not exist until 1861, the Italian peninsula has sent millions of its people to the shores of North America. These new arrivals thought of themselves as Neopolitans, Sicilians, Calabrians, or Syracuseans. They might not have understood each other’s dialects, but on arrival in the United States they became Italian Americans. By the turn of the 20th century, they would be ready to change the continent once more.
Nearly half of Italian immigrants would eventually return to Italy, but today’s Italian-American community is descended from those who decided to remain in America. They brought over their families and created ethnic enclaves in Northern cities and small industrial towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Italian immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the late 1800s as relatively unskilled labor that helped fuel a booming industrial economy. These Italian workers seemed unlikely new Americans. Most of those early arrivals were young men leaving a semifeudal Italian South that held little in the way of opportunity. Most of this generation of Italian immigrants took their first steps on U.S. soil in a place that has now become a legend—Ellis Island. In the 1880s, they numbered 300,000; in the 1890s, 600,000; in the decade after that, more than two million. By 1920, when immigration began to taper off, more than 4 million Italians had come to the United States, and represented more than 10 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population.
What brought about this dramatic surge in immigration? The causes are complex, and each hopeful individual or family no doubt had a unique story. By the late 19th century, the peninsula of Italy had finally been brought under one flag, but the land and the people were by no means unified. Decades of internal strife had left a legacy of violence, social chaos, and widespread poverty. The peasants in the primarily poor, mostly rural south of Italy and on the island of Sicily had little hope of improving their lot. Diseases and natural disasters swept through the new nation, but its fledgling government was in no condition to bring aid to the people. As transatlantic transportation became more affordable, and as word of American prosperity came via returning immigrants and U.S. recruiters, Italians found it increasingly difficult to resist the call of “L’America”.
This new generation of Italian immigrants was distinctly different in makeup from those that had come before. No longer did the immigrant population consist mostly of Northern Italian artisans and shopkeepers seeking a new market in which to ply their trades. Instead, the vast majority were farmers and laborers looking for a steady source of work—any work. There were a significant number of single men among these immigrants, and many came only to stay a short time. Within five years, between 30 and 50 percent of this generation of immigrants would return home to Italy, where they were known as ritornati.
Those who stayed usually remained in close contact with their family in the old country, and worked hard in order to have money to send back home. In 1896, a government commission on Italian immigration estimated that Italian immigrants sent or took home between $4 million and $30 million each year, and that “the marked increase in the wealth of certain sections of Italy can be traced directly to the money earned in the United States.”
Urban life was often filled with hazards for the new immigrant, and housing could be one of the greatest dangers. At the turn of the century more than half the population of New York City, and most immigrants, lived in tenement houses, narrow, low-rise apartment buildings that were usually grossly overcrowded by their landlords. Cramped, poorly lit, under ventilated, and usually without indoor plumbing, the tenements were hotbeds of vermin and disease, and were frequently swept by cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis. The investigative journalist Jacob Riis, himself a Danish immigrant, launched a public campaign to expose and eradicate the exploitative housing new immigrants were forced to endure.
Immigrants’ work places could be as unhealthy as their homes. A substantial number of southern Italian immigrants had only worked as farmers, and were thus qualified only for unskilled, and more dangerous, urban labor. Many Italians went to work on the growing city’s municipal works projects, digging canals, laying paving and gas lines, building bridges, and tunneling out the New York subway system. In 1890, nearly 90 percent of the laborers in New York’s Department of Public Works were Italian immigrants.
As immigration from Europe and Asia neared its crest in the late 19th century, anti-immigrant sentiment soared along with it. The U.S. was in the grips of an economic depression, and immigrants were blamed for taking American jobs. At the same time, racialist theories circulated in the press, advancing pseudo scientific theories that alleged that “Mediterranean” types were inherently inferior to people of northern European heritage. Drawings and songs caricaturing the new immigrants as childlike, criminal, or subhuman became sadly commonplace. One 1891 cartoon claimed that “If immigration was properly restricted, you would never be troubled with anarchism, socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!”
Attacks on Italians were not limited to the printed page, however. From the late 1880s, anti-immigrant societies sprang up around the country, and the Ku Klux Klan saw a spike in membership. Catholic churches and charities were vandalized and burned, and Italians attacked by mobs. In the 1890s alone, more than 20 Italians were lynched. Anti-immigrant sentiment continued until the 1920s, when severe restrictions on immigration were put into place by the U.S. Congress. When this legislation passed, the great era of Italian immigration came to an end.
although Italian Americans tend to respect authority, especially the authority of parents and elders, they also harbor a suspicion of broader authority figures, such as politicians and the Catholic hierarchy. This stems from the distrust of such authority in Italy. In America, the family stood as a bulwark against the larger, sometimes hostile, institutions. Respect for authority within the family; suspicion of authority outside of the community.
The Godfather, written by Mario Puzo, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, stand as the greatest American films of all time. The movies introduced famous lines into the American lexicon: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” as well as the ominous message behind a horse’s head in a bed.
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